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Assyrian actions during Isaiah's ministry

Here is some info that is relevant to the Siege of Lachish wall carvings from Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh, and to Isaiah and Kings.

Horn, Siegfried H. (ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979).

From article Sennacherib:

Sennacherib’s next major campaign was carried out in the west in 701 b.c., where a revolt in Syria and Palestine demanded his attention. First he captured a number of Phoenician cities, and then marched against the center of rebellion in Palestine, the Philistine cities and the kingdom of Judah. Sennacherib claims to have taken 46 fortified cities from Hezekiah of Judah, besides many villages, and to have carried off 200,150 captives (the Assyriologist A. Ungnad believes that the number should be read 2,150), besides tremendous amounts of spoil. His siege of Lachish, probably the strongest fortress city of Judah with the exception of Jerusalem, is mentioned in the Bible (2 Ki 18:14, 17; 19:8) and also depicted by Sennacherib on long stone reliefs . Jerusalem was besieged for a time by an Assyrian army, but was not taken (ch 18:17). So Sennacherib could claim only that he had made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving the city’s gate” (ANET 288). Since his attention was urgently needed in the east, Sennacherib had to be satisfied with receiving a heavy tribute from Hezekiah, which is mentioned in the Bible and in the Assyrian king’s records (2 Ki 18:14–16; ANET 288). The detailed Assyrian version of this campaign, inscribed on well-preserved clay prisms (ANET 287, 288), agrees in all major points with the Biblical records, although it shows differences in details.

During the next 10 years Sennacherib was kept busy mainly with affairs in Babylonia and Elam. Finally he became so weary of the frequent rebellions of Babylon that he destroyed the city ruthlessly and thoroughly, and even flooded the whole area by diverting the Euphrates, in order to transform the surrounding land into a marsh and thus prevent the city’s resurrection. Shortly afterward he must have carried out another military campaign against Hezekiah, because 2 Ki 19:9 mentions an attempt of Tirhakah, the Nubian king of Egypt, to aid Hezekiah during a campaign of Sennacherib. Since Tirhakah did not leave Nubia, his homeland, until about 689 b.c., when he became coregent with his brother at the age of 20, this campaign cannot be dated earlier. Therefore it must be concluded that the Biblical records of chs 18–20 and parallel passages deal with 2 distinct campaigns and not with one, as a cursory reading of the narrative seems to indicate. It must have been during this later campaign that Sennacherib’s army suffered the disastrous loss recorded in ch 19:35, when it was smitten by an angel during the siege of Jerusalem. Although the Assyrian records naturally are silent about this disaster, it was not forgotten among the ancient nations, as is proved by a story of the Greek historian Herodotus. While visiting Egypt more than 200 years after Sennacherib’s death Herodotus was told that when the Assyrian king advanced against Egypt, immense numbers of mice ate the bowstrings of his army so that the soldiers fled in panic. Since the mice were considered the bearers of bubonic plague, it is generally believed that the story implies an outbreak of this disease in the army of the Assyrians. There is little reason to doubt that this was the Egyptian version of the catastrophe recorded in v. 35. See Hezekiah.

Notes: A British Museum Compass database document commenting on a section of Sennacherib's wall carvings showing the the siege and capture of the city of Lachish in 701 BC, from his Nineveh South-West Palace, says:

"Having been exiled from their city, the people of Lachish move through the countryside to be resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire. Below them high officials and foreigners are being tortured and executed. It is likely that they are being flayed alive. The foreigners are possibly officers from Nubia. The Nubians were seen as sharing responsibility for the rebellion. Much of Egypt at this time was ruled by a line of kings from Nubia (the Twenty-fifth Dynasty) who were keen to interfere in the politics of the Levant, to contain the threat of Assyrian expansion. As Sennacherib's forces laid siege to Lachish, an Egyptian army appeared, led by a man called Taharqa, according to the Old Testament. He may be the later pharaoh of Egypt with the same name (690-664 BC). Sennacherib's account claims that the rebels had called on the support of the kings of Egypt (Delta princes) and the Kings of Kush (Nubia). The armies clashed on the plain of Eltekeh. While Sennacherib claimed victory, he was still not able to capture Jerusalem."

If this is the case, then rather than there being two invasions as the SDA Bible dictionary proposes, it may be just one invasion, and Tirhakah may have gone to help Hezekiah before he became king of Egypt, whilst he was still living in Nubia, and he may have led a joint Egyptian-Nubian army against Sennacherib.

Horn, Siegfried H. (ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979).

From article Hezekiah:

Hezekiah is best known for his brave fight against the powerful Assyrian Empire, and for his faith in God during one of Sennacherib’s invasions, a faith that was rewarded by a miraculous destruction of a large Assyrian army. In the 6th year of Hezekiah (evidently of his coregency with his father) he witnessed the destruction of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom (2 Ki 18:10). His father Ahaz had made himself an Assyrian vassal (ch 16:7–18). Detesting this situation, Hezekiah determined to shake off the Assyrian yoke. He seems to have made an alliance with Egypt despite the prophet Isaiah’s opposition to such an unwise action (Is 30:1–5; 31:1–3). Whether he had already severed his connections with Assyria in Sargon’s time is not certain. A broken cuneiform inscription mentions an Assyrian campaign conducted by Sargon’s army commander against the Philistine city of Ashdod in 711 b.c., recorded also in Is 20:1. The inscription says that attempts had been made to incite Judah, Edom, and Moab to rebel against Assyria (ANET 287). However, the text is broken and the reference to Judah is somewhat vague. It is possible that Hezekiah had already clashed with Sargon, since in a Nimrud inscription the Assyrian king calls himself “the subduer of the country Judah which is far away” (ANET 287). A test came in 701 b.c. when Sennacherib, who had followed Sargon II in 705 b.c. on the throne of Assyria, carried out a successful campaign against Palestine in general, and against Hezekiah in particular. Of this invasion both Biblical and cuneiform records are available. The Biblical records (2 Ki 18:13 to 19:36; 2 Chr 32:1–21; Is 36 and 37) combine two invasions of Sennacherib in such a way that it is difficult to know where the account of the campaign of 701 b.c. ends and that of the later one (which took place after 690 b.c.) begins. Sennacherib’s records of his 1st invasion, inscribed on clay prisms, are well preserved (see ANET 287, 288). The campaign was also pictured on stone reliefs in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh . Hezekiah had weak allies. Isaiah had warned the nation not to put any hope in Egypt and Ethiopia, whose conquest by Assyria the prophet predicted (Is 20:2–6). Egypt, ruled at that time by Nubian kings, was so impotent that Sennacherib’s general was fully justified in describing the nation as a “bruised reed, … on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it” (2 Ki 18:21). Another impotent supporter of Hezekiah was Merodach-baladan (Mar-duk-apal-iddin), a Chaldean who twice was king of Babylon, first from 722/21 to 710/09 b.c., and again for several months in 703/02 b.c. Each time he was driven from his throne and kingdom by the Assyrian army. It was apparently about the time of Sennacherib’s first invasion of Judah that Hezekiah’s miraculous recuperation from a mortal disease caused Merodach-baladan to send envoys to him (2 Ki 20:12, 13). Yet the Chaldean leader at that time would have been in no position to help Hezekiah in his struggle for freedom from the Assyrian yoke. The Biblical record says that Sennacherib took all the fortified cities of Judah, and then threatened Jerusalem with a great army commanded by some of his highest officers. In the meantime the king besieged and took the strong fortress of Lachish, and later, Libnah. Hezekiah paid a large tribute to Sennacherib, consisting of 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold (2 Ki 18:13 to 19:8; Is 36:1 to 37:8). An examination shows that the Assyrian records (ANET 287, 288) agree in all major points with the Biblical narrative, although there are some differences in details. Sennacherib claims that he met no opposition in Syria or Phoenicia, and that many kings, including Judah’s neighbors, such as the kings of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, paid tribute and bowed to his yoke. The only opponents seem to have been Sidqia of Ashkelon, the population of Ekron, and Hezekiah. Sennacherib first captured Ashkelon and deported Sidqia and his family to Assyria; then he fought a battle at Eltekeh against the army of Ekron, punishing Ekron’s nobility in a cruel manner. Next he attacked Judah, besieging and taking 46 fortified cities and countless small villages, and capturing in all 200,150 citizens of Judah. He claims that he made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage,” but he does not say that he conquered his city. Sennacherib also mentions the tribute paid by Hezekiah, although there are discrepancies in the figures, Sennacherib’s being the higher. These can be explained by assuming that Sennacherib either gave an exaggerated figure with regard to the amount of silver paid by Hezekiah or included a later payment made by Hezekiah, one that is not mentioned in the Bible.

At a later time, after Tirhakah (Taharka), the Nubian king, had ascended the throne of Egypt, c. 690 b.c., Sennacherib must have made another attempt to subjugate Hezekiah. Hezekiah received a blasphemous letter from Sennacherib demanding the surrender of the city, but Judah’s king, trusting in Isaiah’s words that God would save Jerusalem, refused to surrender it. His trust was rewarded when by divine intervention the Assyrian army was smitten at night (2 Ki 19:9–36; 2 Chr 32:21; Is 37:9–37). The chroniclers of Sennacherib did not record this disaster. Defeats or catastrophes were seldom if ever recorded by the Assyrian historians. Among other nations, however, the Assyrian disaster was not so quickly forgotten. According to Herodotus, the army of “Sennacherib, king of the Arabians and Assyrians,” suffered greatly during a campaign against Egypt. He attributes the catastrophe to an attack by field mice, resulting in a grave defeat (ii. 141). Scholars have thought that Herodotus’ story refers to an epidemic of bubonic plague which broke out in the Assyrian army.

Notes: ANET stands for J. B. Pritchard (ed.) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton NJ, 1969).

On the moral of the story, see: White, Ellen G., Prophets and Kings, Ch. 30: Deliverance From Assyria (1917).

Links to photos of relevant artifacts:
  • The royal steward inscription, rock cut tomb, from Silwan near Jerusalem, possibly that of Shebna who is mentioned by Isaiah.

  • In Isaiah 20, Isaiah goes around naked and barefoot in order to show what will happen to Egypt and Cush (allies of Judah against Assyria), who will be led into exile "naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered". The Assyrian practice of stripping prisoners of war naked in order to humiliate them is well documented in the pictures on the brass strips from gates of Shalmaneser III's palace at Balawat (858-824 BC, before Isaiah's time). These pictures also illustrate various aspects of Assyrian warfare.
  • British Museum page about Balawat gate bronze strips
  • Another British Museum page about Balawat gate bronze strips
  • 040_BalawatGatesReconstruction
  • 041_BalawatGates1
  • 042_BalawatGates2
  • 043_BalawatGates3
  • 044_BalawatGates4
  • 045_BalawatGates5
  • 046_BalawatGates6
  • 047_BalawatGates7
  • 048_BalawatGates8
  • 049_BalawatGates9
  • 050_BalawatGates10

  • In the siege of the city of Lachish in Judah (during the campaign where Hezekiah was also under siege in Jerusalem), as depicted on Sennacherib's palace walls in Nineveh, the people being flayed alive, could be foreigners who helped the Judeans against the Assyrians, possibly some of the Cushites or Egyptians who came with Tirhakah to help Hezekiah.
  • 062_Lachish1
  • 063_Lachish2
  • 064_Lachish3
  • 064a_Lachish3a
  • 065_Lachish4
  • 065a_Lachish5
  • 065b_LachishArtifacts
  • 077_AssyrianCamp_Lachish_NinevehSW
  • Prisoners of war being abused in Iraq, from another relief on Sennacherib's palace walls.
  • Museum Links:
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